SIR ALEX FERGUSON once said that assembling a great side was the easy part of sport management – it was knowing when to dismantle it in order to begin rebuilding another that was the challenge.
The comment feels apposite when it comes to assessing the ongoing unravelling at Old Trafford, and it also helps explain why things went so catastrophically wrong during the England cricket team’s winter tour of Australia.
Despite a number of warning signs being apparent during last summer’s Ashes victory, when the dominance of a handful of key sessions papered over some fairly alarming cracks, it was clearly felt that it was business as usual when it came to England maintaining their dominance over Australia.
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Evidently, it wasn’t. And while an Ashes whitewash is about as embarrassing as it comes, the fear is that a lack of succession planning will condemn England to a lengthy period in the doldrums. With home advantage to sustain them, this summer’s series with Sri Lanka and India offer an opportunity to rebuild, but it is already hard to look forward to the 2015 Ashes series with too much confidence. Eighteen months out, and England have a great deal of catching up to do.
They would not have been in such a parlous position had so many problems not been allowed to come to a head at the same time.
Jonathan Trott’s mental disintegration had clearly begun long before last summer’s Ashes combat, so given that the ECB were fully aware of the problem and were attempting to manage it, why was such a key batsman allowed to travel to Australia as if nothing was wrong, and why was such little thought given to how to replace him?
Graeme Swann was not at his best last summer either, despite attempts to produce pitches that would aid him, yet there was barely an attempt to come up with a better alternative than Monty Panesar, despite the ECB hierarchy clearly being sceptical about the off-spinner’s suitability for the Test arena.
Matt Prior is another player whose dreadful form in Australia could have been predicted, yet England still travelled Down Under without another specialist wicketkeeper, and with Jonny Bairstow having no previous experience of keeping wicket at Test level.
The presence of back-to-back Ashes series on the schedule undoubtedly restricted the selectors’ ability to experiment, but when an opportunity finally presented itself in the final Test of last summer, they appeared to lose their heads completely as they selected Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan at The Oval.
Neither is likely to play for England again, and one can’t help but wonder how England’s line-up for the opening Test in Brisbane might have looked had Ben Stokes, Gary Ballance or Scott Borthwick been given a chance to prove themselves in August. Instead, by the time they were rushed into the team in Australia, morale was at rock bottom and, in the case of Ballance and Borthwick, the Ashes had already been well and truly relinquished.
The whole thing smacked of over-confidence bordering on arrogance, a sense that England could pick pretty much anybody to beat an Australia team that was regarded as technically limited and mentally fragile prior to the start of the series. At least no one will be making that mistake again.
So where does that leave us as the rebuilding begins? There have been inevitable calls for a complete overhaul, with Andy Flower’s position as team director and Alastair Cook’s status as captain called into question. The wisdom of retaining the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and James Anderson has also been debated.
Change is clearly required, but just as England have suffered from a lack of transition over the last 18 months, so they would also be damaged by too radical a reaction now.
Trott and Swann have departed – the former not necessarily forever, although it is hard to see him coming back – and Prior will surely spend the vast majority of next summer in the county ranks. Michael Carberry’s suitability for Test cricket remains open to debate, Tim Bresnan’s yeomanly qualities have surely run their course and Panesar’s limitations have been exposed too many times for him to be granted yet another opportunity.
But, for the time being at least, the cull should end there. Stokes and Ballance will surely start the opening Test of the summer having proved their technique and character under the most intense scrutiny imaginable, but they will need the support of some more senior players in order to flourish.
Cook’s captaincy left a lot to be desired in Australia, but he remains a respected leader and the most accomplished batsman in the team. He could probably do with some additional off-field support, but he is too good a player to remain out of form forever.
Flower inherited an England team beset with multiple problems and transformed them into the best Test side in the world, so given time, there is no reason why he should not be able to do so again. He is certainly the best-placed person to try.
Can he be persuaded to continue tolerating Pietersen’s foibles? The signs are not good, with stories emerging of an irreparable breakdown in relations between the two. If that is the case, Pietersen will have to go. But for all his failings, the 33-year-old remains one of the few England players capable of transforming a game in an innings.
He threw away some decent positions in Australia, but unlike Cook, Bell and Joe Root, at least he got himself into them in the first place, and for all that he succumbed to some increasingly indefensible dismissals, he still ended the series as England’s leading run scorer.
He also wants to continue representing his country, a stark contrast to Swann, whose mid-tour retirement was shockingly selfish. It’s hard to say this about too many England players, but even after the events of the last few months, the side would be a lesser one without Pietersen in it.
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